The Georgia Trust

PRESERVATION ISSUES

Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation Asks
'Where Does Eminent Domain Fit Into the Preservation Puzzle?'

By Gregory B. Paxton
President & CEO
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation

Editor’s Note: The following editorial comment is adapted from the editorial in the January/February 2006 edition of “The Rambler,” published by The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. A copy of the comments that follow along with a head & shoulders shot of the author, Greg Paxton, president & CEO of the Trust, may be downloaded by going to www.georgiatrust.org/eminent_domain.htm.
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ATLANTA -- In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. New London that the use of eminent domain for economic development met the definition of public purpose.

This ruling not only brought intense and emotional public response, but has resulted in a blaze of legislative activity across the country, including in Georgia.

Eminent domain—also referred to as condemnation—has been used by local and state governments and other public and quasi-public entities for years to acquire private property for both public and private use.

The very rise of historic preservation came from the public outcry during the 1950s and 1960s, when local governments used eminent domain to remove “blighted” older and historic areas for “urban renewal”—usually by private entities.

While eminent domain is nothing new, what has changed with the Kelo decision is the clarification that “public use” and “public purpose” can include economic development, a broad term that can involve private residential or commercial development.

The case has created a puzzle of sorts for state and local governments to piece together. Swirling around the decision are the issues of private property, economic development and what exactly constitutes the public’s best interests.

Here in Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and what it means legally for the state is a significant issue during the 2006 General Assembly, and Governor Perdue has taken the lead.

Our primary interest is of course in how this ruling and the General Assembly decisions will help or hinder the Trust’s and many others' highly successful efforts across the state to revitalize scores of communities by reusing historic structures.

While eminent domain has often been used to eliminate historic buildings in disrepair, long-term vacant parcels have often resulted. Condemnation also can be—and has been—used to protect historic resources.

The catalyst for historic neighborhood revitalization for the last 30 years has been through acquiring, rehabilitating and reselling historic buildings.

Historic Macon Foundation uses the city’s power of eminent domain to acquire absentee-owned derelict buildings that block its effective neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Monticello condemned a dilapidated building on its downtown square and rehabilitated the structure in 2001 for its City Hall, sparking revival of the whole downtown.

And in Stockbridge, debate swirls over the use of eminent domain to condemn the only building currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places to build a multi-use complex with a city hall, retail shops and homes.

Ignoring overwhelming evidence that rehabilitation of historic buildings is the key catalyst for community revitalization, few communities still view demolition as the solution to dealing with rundown historic buildings.

A balance can be found between using the power of condemnation to promote community revitalization such as through historic preservation, and using eminent domain for private development at the expense of the community’s well being.

The fine line separating the two is community involvement, both in the planning process and in increasing public awareness of the importance of preserving each community’s unique character.

What will be the real impact of the Kelo decision? Only time will tell.

We hope that the General Assembly will continue to encourage the use of a multitude of planning tools and economic incentives so that historic downtowns and neighborhoods continue to revitalize with an awareness that preservation is a very vital piece of the economic development toolbox.

We hope the public keeps the issue of community enhancement in mind as we consider all the issues associated with eminent domain.

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